The end of the road is obvious when you’re a player. The signs are all around you. You can try to deny their existence or you can accept them gracefully. But you know they’re there.
The body and mind may not be as willing as they once were; young players in your position may be challenging you mentally, physically and emotionally; where once you asked yourself only what was required to win, now questions swirl around about how long you can keep going and if your increased experience can compensate for a tapering off in the physical exertion you’re prepared to put yourself through.
In theory, there is no end of the road for a team if transition can be managed successfully. But if isn’t then, just as for a player, the end can be dispiriting.
Dublin are currently managing a level of transition with a combination of factors that on their own would be challenging and, when taken together, require an honest and truthful assessment of where they stand.
I believe they have the management and players who will do that but to transition successfully there needs to be pain and discomfort.
I played for Dublin for 13 years but in some ways I feel I have never been more invested in their success than I am today. Our success was built on a collective and we were at all times aware of those on the outside willing us to fail. Those people haven’t gone away so I want to offer constructive engagement on how to manage this change for Dublin.
After they lost to Mayo in last year’s All Ireland semi-final, it was still possible to believe that a few minor tweaks could fix things but after a winter of reflection and the early stages of the season, it is clear that something more fundamental is required.
With all the moving parts over the past few years, it isn’t a surprise. Jim Gavin and his management team’s exit was going to be challenging enough. A manager who had led in a historically successful manner since 2013 and who had influenced and affected many of the players in a way they would consider hugely beneficial was going to be difficult to overcome.
Then there has been a mass exodus of quality players including Stephen Cluxton, Bernard Brogan, Michael Darragh MacAuley, Jack Mc Caffrey etc. How could any team in any walk of life not experience a moment of truth with this level of change? Even with all the talent management strategies and prudent succession plans in place, a loss of personnel of this calibre is going to be felt.
When I was nearing the end of my playing career, I knew that to get game time I needed to take my body to a place it wasn’t able to go and my mind to a place that it didn’t want to go anymore. I used to say to Jim, ‘if you don’t want me here or any of the older lads, let us know, don’t keep us hanging.’
Jim did let us know- by not playing us. Succession planning was a cornerstone of Jim’s seven-year tenure whereby each year he would add one or two quality young players. The likes of Brian Fenton, Niall Scully, Con O’Callaghan, Brian Howard, Eoin Murchan, etc transitioned into the fold on a staggered basis. All adding value, bringing new qualities and energy and seamlessly slotting into the clearly defined system of play. They were added to a team that was already oversubscribed with quality players. The knock on effect of this was that the starting 15 players all felt under pressure to perform with one or maybe two players competing for the jersey.
Unfortunately, now we have a situation where succession planning hasn’t been as fruitful. Many of the players stepping up need more time to adjust and prove themselves at this level. This is natural for every successful team and it’s amplified by the fact that on one hand you’ve so many experienced players leaving at one time while also the gulf between the minor and senior team has got wider.
When I watched the defeat to Armagh last weekend I saw things I believe are indicative of a team trying to adjust to transition. The team will be used to standards set by Jim and by Stephen, but now there are different standards and different leaders and it’s important that all the players, new and old, understand and buy into these standards.
I believe this transition doesn’t have to be fatal if the group are honest with themselves and genuinely appraise the resources they have at their disposal and play to the strengths of this new group. However, if the team feel they can live on past glories then they will be caught out.
I am a Manchester United fan and we are still suffering from the difficult transition from Alex Ferguson. I often find myself living in the past and craving a United team to play the way Fergie’s teams played. But what is really needed for the club to succeed is United need to find a new identity that aligns with the current resources they have and the needs of the modern game. While it is certainly not as stark a situation, I feel a similar identity check is required with this Dublin team.
There are smart and honest men within the management team and the playing group that will have a clear view on what way they need to play and what culture they need to define to ensure they get the best out of this season.
The players need to take the individual learnings from their success in the past but not live in the past glory days. As a group they need to objectively assess and accept where they are and collectively define a new ‘why’ that inspires this group to begin a new journey. This should re-energise and excite the leaders of this group. Because let’s be honest, they have nothing to prove to anyone, they have won more in this game than anyone in the history of Gaelic football. But knowing these players and the competitive personalities within the group, they will want to find a way to evolve and win.
Evolving their game plan is one part of this process. Throughout the O Byrne cup games there was a feeling that they were tactically setting up a bit differently than in the recent years and that Dessie was putting his stamp on their system which we can analyse as trends start to appear.
This excites me as a fan to see them play this way because the controlled style of play they have mastered is becoming stale and opposing teams have figured it out. New styles of play require fresh talent and while it is not abundantly clear where that will come from there is a full league campaign to unearth a few.
For Dessie and the team to evolve their system to whatever style they decide is required they need to ensure that players have total clarity and belief in it and it needs to be the align with their new ‘why’.
The core group of 15 quality players in this team in my view remains unmatched while they may not have the depth that was once so frightening, they have more than enough talented players and management to figure it out.
By finding a new identity and new ‘why’ it will result in new behaviours, these behaviours might be more akin to a group that is chasing than one on the top.
It is a subtle change of mindset which accepts that things will go wrong for a team on the up and doesn’t see every setback – a referee’s decision, a misplaced pass – as anything more than temporary.
Dublin in their prime became used to overcoming every bit of misfortune. Arsene Wenger was once asked what percentage of success was down to luck. “Zero per cent,” he replied. We felt like that at Dublin too but Wenger changed his tune when his team’s results turned and he failed to manage transition.
Dublin have too many advantages in terms of quality and managerial nous to be unaware of the challenge they’re facing.
The destination is unknown and the path looks treacherous but a shift in attitude and an acceptance that Dublin, for so long the top dog, are now challengers is an important realisation.